Jennifer Lynn Stoever
Dr. Jennifer Lynn Stoever holds a Ph.D. in American Studies and Ethnicity from the University of Southern California. An associate professor at SUNY Binghamton, she teaches gender and race in popular culture, African-American literature, as well as sound studies. She is also the Co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Sounding Out!: The Sound Studies Blog. We talked to her about her 2016 book The Sonic Color Line: Race and the Cultural Politics of Listening (NYU Press).
How did this research project begin? When did the ideas crystallize for you?
It's hard to pinpoint an exact beginning because I have been thinking about race and music for a long time – about how people interpret and hear music differently. I grew up in Southern California in the 1990s, and it was an exciting time of sonic experimentation. Our music scene in Riverside was all fusions, clashes, and re-mixes, both in terms of the sound and the people – but it was also a time of great inequity and violence. The LA Riots, touched off by the "not guilty" verdict for the LAPD officers who beat Rodney King, happened about a month before I graduated high school; by the end of the decade, two people close to me were killed by the police in the Inland Empire. During that time, Southern California both scarred me and moved me to action. The gap between the utopia, yearning, and knowledge we express in music and the continued racist, sexist realities of the U.S. perplexed me then, and it is a low key driving force behind The Sonic Color Line.
The specific ideas, though, crystallized when I was in graduate school at USC, in the American Studies and Ethnicity Ph.D. program. I was taking an independent study with Viet Nguyen on hip hop, and, in addition to reading, we had been going to Project Blowed at the KAOS Network in Leimert Park, which was a freestyle night back then, rapping and dancing. I had been complaining throughout the semester that the folks we had been reading did not give enough attention to the sound of hip hop – the rappers' flows, the DJ's specific manipulations of samples, and the way that both interact with the beat. So like the badass professor he is, Viet challenged me to write the kind of scholarship that I found lacking. For my final project, I had to write a discography of LA hip hop that was especially attentive to sound, and the locality of the sound. What makes these artists sonically "Los Angeles"? So for two weeks, I'd go to this coffee shop on Beverly, Insomnia, and work late into the night, listening to the albums I selected in my headphones – Medusa's Undaground Crewed, The Pharcyde's Bizarre Ride II, The Freestyle Fellowship's Inner City Griots, and Yo Yo's black Pearl are a few I remember from that assignment – with this ear toward thinking about sound as a medium for communicating environments and their vibes and affects. At the same time, I was reading Richard Wright's Native Son for a seminar I was taking with Carla Kaplan, and it was suddenly a much different experience. I was hearing Chicago along with Bigger Thomas, Wright's protagonist, and taking in the subtle knowledge that sound offers that character about the spatial politics of white supremacy in the 1930s. Listening helps him survive, but it also grinds Bigger down too. The writing I did for Native Son during that time ended up being the first twenty pages of The Sonic Color Line.
Tell us about your "four key interventions in sound studies' critical conversation on race and sound."
First of all, my research in The Sonic Color Line is dedicated to revising the canon of "sound studies," which is still overwhelmingly white and male, despite the ongoing interventions of Sounding Out! and scholars such as Inés Casillas, Daphne Brooks, and Fred Moten. Basically, what we are now calling "sound studies" has a long historical precedent – both inside the U.S. and beyond its borders – one that reaches temporally and culturally beyond John Cage in the 1950s and R. Murray Schafer in the 1970s. So my book examines black artists such as The Jubilee Singers and Lena Horne and black writers such as Harriet Jacobs, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Ann Petry as theorists of sound, thinkers whose art shared ideas about how sound works in the world, and anything called "sound studies" is greatly indebted to them.
One of the things I argue that Du Bois and Petry theorize, in particular, is that whiteness operates as a sonic project, and amplifying that fact is my second intervention. What I mean by that is that whiteness is audible: it has a tangible sound – often quiet, but sometimes very noisy and unquenchably so – and it has rules and social mores that govern how public spaces "should" sound and how certain bodies can sound within them. White supremacist ideology expresses itself materially and exerts power over its imagined "Others" through sound and listening. We don't talk enough about this in our contemporary society, even when white men kill black boys such as Jordan Davis for playing "rap crap" – the murderer's words – in their cars, for example, or white people continue to call the police on their black neighbors for the smallest of noise complaints, not only reminding them who still controls the space that by right they have full access to and that they don't really belong, but also putting them in grave danger of police brutality.
The third intervention I make in the book is to identify the sonic color line as something that is external and imposed from the outside, not something biological or essentially housed in black and brown bodies. This point, which has been proven time and again about race, remains important, particularly in Trump's America. We need to continue making it very loudly regarding sound, a medium that all too often flies under the racism radar. White people need to investigate and un-learn the ways they have learned to listen to themselves, other people, and their environment. Since Trump began his racist nationalist campaign targeting Latinx immigrants, for example, white people have begun publicly harassing Spanish speakers even though there is, by law and design, no official language in the United States. The sonic color line ties certain kinds of English to whiteness and whiteness to citizenship through sound, and these videos cropping up daily on youtube reinforce that fact and show how unsafe even mundane activities can be for people of color in the U.S.
Finally, my book amplifies the forms of agency that black people have expressed through listening. The Sonic Color Line isn't just about identifying and deconstructing white people's racist listening habits. That's necessary work, but all too often that's where we end, focusing on white people's racism and is impacts. Each chapter of the book shows how black people in the U.S. have been pointing out the sonic color line in various artistic media long before me. I'm just noticing and signal boosting their work while connecting various media and artists and contextualizing them historically between 1845 and 1946 – resisting oppression in a variety of ways from the very start.
I'm especially invested in discussing visions these writers, performers, and thinkers had for decolonizing listening, reimagining themselves and their ways of knowing and being outside of the imposed framework of the white European creation of the sonic color line while stereotyping them and deeming their sounds and epistemologies as "noise." In the opening chapter, for example, I read Harriet Jacob's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl as a detailed written record of how enslaved women, in particular, used listening to retain the powerful familial connections that chattel slavery and the sonic color line tried to silence. In Incidents, narrator Linda Brent uses visual cues from the landscape to remember her parents' voices – even as slave masters tried to erase their presence and worth through unmarked graves – and imagines her mother and her father's distinct voices urging her to escape. While hiding in her grandmother's attic crawlspace, she uses the primary sense available to her, listening, to retain her connection to her grandmother – who develops an elaborate series of knocks to communicate with her more safely – and to her children. She is also able to imagine herself as a woman worthy of their love and of all of her efforts to get free. Decolonizing listening means freedom to sound, freedom to interpret, freedom to produce and share knowledge through sound and listening as well as recovering older ways of doing all of these things that settler colonialism, chattel slavery, segregation, and racism have attempted to deny and obliterate.
"Racializing vocal timbre" and slavery – tell us more about that.
Although my book The Sonic Color Line has a lot of contemporary applications, I needed to begin with how the white supremacist government in the United States instituted and carried out chattel slavery because it had profound and far-reaching impacts on this nation, including in the realm of sound and listening. In fact, enslavement often operated through sound and listening. Focusing on the aspect of "racialized vocal timbre," my research discusses how white enslavers came to define and understand the people they enslaved not just by their physical appearance, but by their voices too. I read hundreds of ads that enslavers published looking for fugitives from slavery (digitized by the University of North Carolina), and I began to notice that many of them contained descriptions of voices alongside descriptions of dress, hair, and skin tone. Words such as "rough" and "fine" began to emerge as key terms that enslavers used to characterize the voices of their captives – “rough” indicating an unpleasant, harsh, and/or deep quality and "fine" indicating a mellifluousness, heartiness, or musicality – and these adjectives increased after the turn of the nineteenth century.
To me, this discovery suggested three really crucial things of lasting significance in terms of how listening developed culturally in the United States: one, that white people imagined their voices as the "proper" (and civilized) default of the human voice – not too rough, not too fine, but the "normal" standard against which the quality of all other voices should be judged; two, that white enslavers heard the sound of their captives' voices in somewhat flat and routinized ways, suggesting they connected this "black" sound directly to chattel slave status; and three, that black people wrested some agency for themselves through sound and listening, particularly by identifying how enslavers heard them and how enslavers expected them to listen and react – the sensory impact of the sonic color line – exploiting and resisting it in various ways I talk about in the book. In other words, black people produced knowledge through listening, developing new forms of community and/or resistant listening practices, and devising ways to represent how U.S. white supremacy disciplines listening and relies on sound to police difference.
Discuss the "rise of the sonic color line in the 1840s and 1850s."
The rise of the sonic color line in the 1840s and 1850s is connected to the racializing of vocal timbre. As Northern activists and politicians increased their fight to end slavery during this time, the institution – and the color lines that fed it – became more strict and violent rather than less. White, elite Southerners began amplifying what they perceived to be essential and, therefore, permanent racial differences between black and white people. Part of this process entailed identifying whiteness and maleness as something much more than skin deep; sound could now audibly signify a mode of bodily comportment, signal one's adherence to a white way of being and feeling, and become explicitly recognized as an important new method of taking in the world and externalizing white supremacy as a means of sensory control over space. Far from being invisible – as we so often claim about whiteness when we speak of how white people perceive it as a visual norm – whiteness became an audible way of animating one's body and a sensory orientation to the world itself. White elites then, drew the sonic color line as a way to control the dangerous potential of cross-racial aural traffic by providing whites with an aural etiquette of disciplined interpretations, hierarchies, and allegedly "clear" racial distinctions for incoming vibrations. Minstrelsy, for example, provided one experience that trained white audiences to hear explicitly as white people – but simultaneously as "Americans" and "just people" – while overtly shaping the antebellum content of "black" sounds and normalized the American listening ear across class boundaries and the geographic boundaries of the Mason-Dixon line.
At the same time, the notion of race as an easily detected and defined visible entity was becoming more and more unstable in a volatile U.S. careening into Civil War: generations of rape of black women by white enslavers had resulted in a growing population of light-skinned enslaved peoples – challenging the visibility of "blackness" as a racial marker. Then Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850, essentially turning the entire white population into slave hunters, whether they wanted to be or not, being bound by law to report sightings of fugitive slaves or face fines and jail time. This law threw the visibility of "blackness" into question in a different way: demanding white people detect freedom-seeking enslaved people in their midst, placing all black people in potential danger, and insisting white people scrutinize blackness in new and more nefarious ways beyond sight, particularly because many freedom-seekers escaped by attempting to pass as white or trying to blend into free black communities. Therefore, socially constructed sensory indicators of racial identity became salient to white people for heightened surveillance purposes, especially culturally identified aural markers of slavery, which began to appear in advertisements regarding runaways. Terms such as "hoarse voice" first appeared in these ads in 1777, and "fine voice" in 1783. In the University of North Carolina's digital archive of enslavers' advertisements, I traced a sharp increase in voice descriptions in 1811 that steadily rises throughout the 1830s and 1840s. For white Americans, listening as a form of racialization really kicks in during this period.
How did the Fisk Jubilee Singers challenge America's sonic color line?
The Fisk Jubilee Singers were amazing! They were a group of young men and women – all in their late teens and early twenties – who formed a choir in 1871, during the period of Radical Reconstruction after the Civil War. All of them were students at Fisk University, now what we'd call an HBCU or Historically black College and University, but back then it was barely much more than some abandoned Army barracks in Nashville, Tennessee. The university was in dire straits financially and needed a lot of money to keep the school open and to build permanent structures. Formed under the direction of white Northerner George L. White, the original choir was comprised predominately of formerly enslaved people whom White versed in the style and breathing techniques of European operatic music.
But, when the group would get together after hours, they would gather secretly to sing songs their parents taught them, songs composed and learned in slavery, such as "Go Down Moses" and "Wade in the Water." White and other professors had heard them sing these songs, but the school expected the choir to be a symbol for black assimilation into white Euro-American culture after the Civil War. So the Jubilee Singers started out singing arias, popular songs, and performing "The Star Spangled Banner" in their local area, but their largely white audiences donated very little and the fundraising floundered. After noting the reaction of white audiences to the occasional spiritual the group would perform as an encore, White asked the group to change up their repertoire and include more of these songs. The group agreed, but on the condition that they would rearrange the music; soprano and pianist Ella Sheppard, in particular, took the lead in creating the group's signature style, one that blended the breathing techniques of the European form with the call-and-response and particular acapella harmonizing of U.S. black diasporic tradition.
For the group, rearranging served two really important purposes: one, it kept private the specific sounds of their parents' songs, the private expressive yearnings which they were rightly afraid would be misinterpreted and mocked by white audiences. Two, and this motivation was paramount to the group: they wanted their music to represent the new post-Civil War America of their freedom dreams, a country where their full citizenship and cultural participation was a given. In the visionary sonics of the Jubilee Singers, assimilation was not only possible – a lot of racists were out there arguing that it wasn't – but actually, for a new modern interracial America, it had to go both ways: whites had to assimilate to black culture too....or better yet, acknowledge how much of American culture was already black culture, from the get go.
That's where the group's intervention into the sonic color line really took root, not because they "crossed over" to white audiences – although that was no small feat due to the intensified racist violence of the Radical Reconstruction period – but because they used sound as a medium to re-vision the racial identity of "American citizen." So Ella Sheppard, Isaac Dickerson, Greene Evans, Benjamin Holmes, Jennie Jackson, Maggie Porter, Thomas Rutling, Minnie Tate, and Eliza Walker – the original group that toured the U.S. and Europe from 1871-1877 – were important not just for performing spirituals composed by enslaved peoples for white audiences, but because they used sound to remake themselves and reimagine their world.
Tell us more about how Richard Wright figures into your argument.
Well, like I mentioned above, Richard Wright was the first author I researched for the book, and his experiments with sound, setting, and narrative inspired me to re-listen to the African-American literary canon. To say that Wright experienced the sonic color line quite strongly in his daily life is an understatement; he grew up in a virulently racist Jim Crow South in the 1920s and lived much of his adult life under de facto segregation in Chicago and New York City until moving to Paris in 1947.
Literature for Wright was an audio-visual force to fight racism – he really took to heart the idea that words could be weapons – and descriptions of sound and listening were a vital part of this mission, particularly when it came to describing black experiences of the Great Migration. His fiction and nonfiction represents the reasons black people left the South as well as testified to the continued white violence they faced in the North, often in new and more subtle forms. The highly symbolic way he used sound in his writing – descriptions of suffocatingly silent white neighborhoods, the horrifically loud sounds of police sirens and firehoses – brings the sonic color line into quite sharp relief. His soundscapes show us the spatial politics of racism and segregation, which aren't just abstract ideas or lines on a map but rather consciously designed, lived and felt realities for black and white people Wright's fiction exposes the sonic color line as internal, affective, and sensory, its impacts portable geographically across those map lines and temporally into our present moment.
Discuss the importance of radio in your book.
Radio for me emerges as an important medium in the twentieth century, not just for dispersing ideas, news, propaganda, and music but for propagating – and enforcing – ideas about race. Honestly, we just don't give radio enough credit for its wide-reaching impact on American culture, for better or for worse. By 1950, 90% of American homes possessed at least one radio! That's a huge media saturation! And during World War II, several stations began broadcasting around the clock because so many people were working swing and graveyard shifts. Radio was ubiquitous in Americans' everyday lives, and it was big business, too; this was the period when the major networks consolidated themselves. And radio in the 1940s and 1950s – the period often referred to as the "Golden Age of Radio" – became overwhelmingly white.
Only ten African-American performers were steadily employed by the national radio industry at its height, 1943-1953. Ten. Behind the scenes, black creatives fared even worse; no black writers were regularly employed by any national station in the 1940s, and the Los Angeles Radio Writers Guild had no black members, which wasn't always the case. In the earlier days of radio, when the medium was much more local and decentralized, black artists and thinkers such as W.E.B. Du Bois had more access to the airwaves. Even with the notably still-limited opportunities of the 1920s and 1930s, Du Bois considered the radio a potential avenue of self-representation and social change. In my archival research at Fisk University, for example, I came across a transcript of a live broadcast from New York City in 1927 where Du Bois publicly debated Lothrop Stoddard, the notorious racist and white supremacist. These kinds of broadcasts weren't happening by the 1940s, and white-run networks made it even more difficult for black people to hear themselves on-air as anything other than stereotypical servant characters such as maids and butlers. Scripted by white writers, these roles deliberately sounded different, not just from the white actors and singers, but from black people themselves. black radio actors like Lillian Randolph and Johnny Lee – both on Amos n' Andy – were taught this so-called "Negro dialect" by white producers.
Even though the networks' racist exclusion and representation was calculated and deliberate, the message they put out to the public was that radio was an open, "colorblind" medium. Because you couldn't see anyone on the radio, how could racism possibly exist there? Studio executives, newspaper critics, even the beloved radio writer Norman Corwin were saying that their practices and the technology were "colorblind" and that they just didn't understand why there weren't more black people in the profession, some of the very same excuses for institutional racism we still hear today. So because racism was officially imagined as a visual form of discrimination and a matter of individual prejudice rather than systemic violence, many listeners perceived the radio as an open, equitable, and transparent version of reality, not a highly orchestrated and scripted segregated medium that was shaping segregated America through sound.
When I hear the phrase "Make America Great Again," it makes me shudder right down to my core because the 1930s and 1940s are the period many people are referencing. Part of that involves this auditory fantasy of a happily white, monocultural America that network radio created during this era. You can see that world in the imagery and rhetoric used on the website devoted to "Old Time Radio" fandom. The Sonic Color Line exposes the sonic stereotyping on network radio during this period, as well as all of the ideological forces that worked to naturalize it, to present it as "just the way things are."
What are you working on now?
Currently, I'm working on a really cool project about record collecting! I'm so excited! It's an extension of The Sonic Color Line in the sense that I'm researching the listening practices of people who used sound in powerful ways to challenge the sonic color line in the late twentieth century: black and Latinx women. In particular, I'm looking at black and Latinx women record collectors in the 1960s and 1970s: how and why they collected records, how they used them in their everyday lives, and how their music taste influenced their identities, their politics, and their families. I'm arguing that women playing records at home to their children and other family members was just as important as DJ-ing in a club, and in fact this practice was a necessary precursor to DJ-ing as we know it in hip hop.
Grand Master Flash, Afrika Bambaataa and Kool Herc, for example, were all raised by women who had record collections in their homes, played records for themselves and their families, and shaped their children's musical taste in ways that American culture and pop music history have not given them credit for. And almost every early Bronx hip hop DJ I have researched has lived this story in some fashion. My new book, working title Living Room Revolutions, will detail this really important history, taking black and Latinx women's collections seriously as such, arguing that the practice of collecting and playing records was a political act, one shaping – and passing on – a black feminist listening praxis. Through archival evidence, rhetorical analysis, and oral history, Living Room Revolutions moves toward the interconnected goals of documenting the selecting practices of black women and their intimate relationship to political consciousness and action, rethinking the figure of the "mother" in popular music studies and record collecting culture, and reconceiving gender – and the role of second wave black feminism of the "long sixties" in hip hop historiography. And, real talk, I get to spend the next few years talking to women about music and their records – it's a dream job.
Leslie Kreiner Wilson, Editor
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